The Major Tech Companies Missing From the Surveillance Reform Letter

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

Eight major American tech giants have teamed up for a government surveillance reform campaign, decrying the National Security Agency’s sweeping power and demanding the end of bulk data collection in a letter to President Barack Obama and lawmakers.

The Sunday announcement, which also featured a new website dedicated to the cause, is nothing short of a public relations campaign to allay fears over compliance with government surveillance. But missing from the unusually-paired mega group – Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, LinkedIn and AOL — are a few Silicon Valley companies ignoring the possible damage done by leaks from NSA former contractor Edward Snowden.

(MORE: Tech Titans Band Together in Effort to Limit Government Surveillance)

Most notably, online retail giant Amazon and marketplace eBay were not among the tech signatories. Microsoft-owned Skype was not explicitly mentioned in the letter, and as TechCrunch points out, was also missing from a related announcement about encrypting data beginning in 2014.

But a Microsoft spokeswoman tells TIME Skype is indeed included in the campaign and encryption announcement. Interestingly, Microsoft chose not to mention Skype, which has been contested for its purported encryption and was highlighted in the first revelations of the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program. Both Amazon and eBay did return requests for comments.

The letter, addressed to Obama and Congress, demands an end to mass data collection and calls for tech companies to be able to both openly discuss surveillance orders and fight them in FISA court. More recently, new leaked documents allege the NSA was illegally tapping data through the back door of Yahoo and Google communication centers. Army Gen. Keith Alexander, the agency director, has since denied the allegation, but Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Kurt Opsahl said that may have been the wakeup call internet companies needed.

(MORE: Spy Games: NSA and CIA Allegedly Tried to Recruit World of Warcraft and Second Life Players)

Hardware-driven companies like Oracle, Cisco Systems, Intel and HP were also absent as tech leaders trumpeted the announcement with full-page ads featured in The New York Times, Politico, The Hill and Roll Call Monday. Opsahl points out a lot of hardware companies don’t possess troves of data like Google or Yahoo, and actually end up selling  equipment that is necessary to conduct bulk widespread surveillance. Brands like Google and Twitter threaten tarnishing their international reputations over the mounting concern of spy relations whereas hardware companies have less to worry about when it comes to sharing data.

So where is the rest of Silicon Valley? Perhaps the public denouncement strategy is most beneficial to consumer-facing entities – of which Amazon is part of — that offer services to a broad swath of the public. Amazon’s cloud technology and web services make it an equally important player in the internet ecosystem and a tempting target for the NSA.

Meanwhile, telecom companies like AT&T, Verizon and Level 3 remain sharply divided on the privacy values in Silicon Valley. As TIME previously reported, telecom companies have the least incentive to complain, enjoying multi-million dollar government contracts annually. AT&T recently told shareholders in a 32-page letter it has no plans of revealing what it shares with the government.

(MORE: AT&T to Shareholders: No NSA Snooping Data for You)

Regardless, all American tech companies should be concerned. Last month Cisco executives reported revenues would drop as much as 10 percent in the current quarter, blaming international blowback in China from the NSA surveillance revelations. The news led to speculation of whether a rising mistrust of the U.S. government could hamper American tech brands’ global competitiveness.

“These services rely upon a sense of trust that people feel comfortable with the services holding their data,” Opsahl said. “That’s really been eroded by the NSA revelations.”

Over the past few weeks, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google have all vowed to encrypt their data to stave off eavesdropping attempts beginning early next year. The new efforts signal Silicon Valley’s shifting momentum to restore faith in American tech brands. Data encryption is as much of a necessary step as policy reform, Opsahl says, protecting companies with proper front door regulation and illegal back door surveillance.

“The tech giants who issued the statement have broken new ground,” says Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology. “We think it’s a game changer.”

The group has not indicated how much they plan to spend on the campaign, but the watershed announcement marks the first time major  powerbrokers like Google and Apple are standing up to the NSA — a narrative that Snowden, one of the agency’s biggest adversaries, had likely imagined.

5 comments
John_Westra
John_Westra

“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” ― C.S. Lewis

Where was the "corporate conscience," when these companies willingly conspired with the NSA or conducted their business with profit-first blinders, completely ignoring the privacy and welfare of their customers?

Like Obama, who their letter is directed to, they are hypocrites, only interested in their own PR and stemming the tsunami of well-deserved negative publicity and Citizen anger, over their misuse of power and abuse of the American People!

CarrieZar
CarrieZar

Please help us educate the people. It is not just the Government and police. In addition to Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, AOL and Twitter it's most of the app developers. Until we get proper legislation making app developers have you op in instead of opting out, you will never know what you have downloaded to your mobile device.
Using a SilentPocket® allows anyone to take control of there own privacy when it comes to smartphone tracking. With over 1,950,000 mobile app developed for smartphones, many of which are stealth and are eavesdropping on your every move. Some are capable of turning on functions on your phone like your mic, camera, GPS, address book and more, even when it has been turned off.
There is only one way to stop this if you really want to know for sure that you have control of your mobile device is to block all forms of wifi coming in or going out.  

RonniRichards
RonniRichards

Damage control. They are all in bed with the beast, they don't actually care about anyone's privacy or well-being, give me a break.